I first met Eileen Essell in 2007 at the Samaritans branch where she and I both volunteered. I was struck by her magnetism, passion for people and zest for life. These were easily explained when I discovered that she had taught drama for years at the Central School of Music and Drama and City University before becoming a Hollywood actress in her eighties including roles in Finding Neverland, The Producers and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It didn’t take much to persuade Eileen (aged 85 at the time) to become a Patron of Create: “It was Create’s story that first captured my imagination. The charity has grown to such heights in such a short space of time and everyone who works there has such a passion for what they do”.
Due to her years as a teacher, she felt a special affinity to the children we work with but also admired our projects with vulnerable older people “as this group is often neglected. There is a tendency to forget that older people are creative too. I had acted on the stage throughout my twenties and thirties but it is only in the last 15 years that I have rediscovered my passion for acting and embarked on a film career. I’m thankful that Create is giving people a chance to discover and showcase their own creative energy later in life.”
Whenever I think about Eileen, it is her extraordinary magnetism that I remember first. Shortly after she became a Patron, I took her to visit our ArtsExtravaganza drama project at St Luke’s Primary School in Tower Hamlets. In a class of nine year olds, she led a warm-up game, took part in our writer’s workshop activities and did a Q&A. The children were mesmerized by her vibrancy, sense of humour and, of course, having a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory grandmother in their classroom! They had watched the film before she arrived and had a host of questions including whether the chocolate river was real. She answered these with great sensitivity to ensure, she told me, “I don’t destroy the film’s magic”.
On another occasion, I took Eileen to Southwold Primary School in Hackney where, following a series of art workshops with children throughout the school, we had transformed the playground into a magical underwater world. She “unveiled” the mural by screwing the last of the children’s fish to the wall and her pleasure at meeting the young artists shone through. Her presence reminded me of bees around a honeypot, as dozens of children swarmed around her. I particularly admired her skill in giving her undivided attention to those who had that all important question to ask her … or just wanted to stand near someone so famous! For me, perhaps my most memorable and moving experience with Eileen was when I took her to meet a group of young carers in Westminster. Young carers often experience isolation, a lack of opportunity and low self-esteem so such visits can be transformational. After watching the play that they had written about the lives they live and the dreams they have, she encouraged them to follow their dreams … as she had done. She made them feel valued and appreciated; she gave them confidence in their drama skills; and she helped them to believe that they could achieve their ambitions if they believed in themselves. And, of course, she answered the inevitable questions about chocolate rivers and Johnny Depp!
I was at my Samaritans branch last night and one of my colleagues told me that it wasn’t just children who loved Eileen: “Whenever we had a branch social in the garden, everyone was always at the far end wanting to talk to her. She just had that effect on people!”
Eileen Essell died on 15 February 2015, aged 92. She will be lovingly remembered and sorely missed.